Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Heathens in the Military: An Interview with Matt Walters

Thanks to Master Sergeant (MSgt) Matt Walters, the Air Force is now the first branch of the United States Armed Forces to include Ásatrú and Heathenry as options in its religious preference list. As Matt explains in the interview below, a member of the military being allowed to select their faith from the list has many positive benefits – not the least of which is having heathens be more accurately represented in demographic reports issued by the various branches of service.

The Thor's hammer that Matt received through Mjölnir Project of White Hart Forge

I've written before of the value of having at least an approximate number of worldwide heathens; Matt's accomplishment will provide another source of data for those interested in Ásatrú statistics. Hopefully, this news will inspire heathens in other walks of life to work for positive change in the way their tradition is represented in the wider culture. One person can make a difference. Due to Matt's dedication, the addition took effect on July 29.

Matt joined the Air Force in 1995 and has been deployed to Southwest Asia and Turkey. He is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician and currently works as a planner and advisor in the Pacific Air Force Command (PACAF) in Hawaii.

I would like to thank Josh Heath for contacting me about this story and for introducing me to Matt. Josh is co-founder of the Open Halls Project and was central to the effort to have the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs add Thor’s hammer to the official list of “available emblems of belief for placement on government headstones and markers.” The Open Halls Project seeks to connect military heathens with both military and civilian heathens worldwide.

KS – How did you come to be a practicing heathen?

MW – I had, since early childhood, a natural inclination toward Norse mythology. I loved the stories and the study of runes. My parents were on two different spectrums when it came to religion; my mother was a devout Buddhist, and my father was devoutly disinterested in religion as a whole.

Matt and his father after being deployed

In the early 1990s, my dad had returned from a business trip to Germany. He had told me that on a drive through the Black Forest region, he had been struck with the idea that here was where his ancestors were. He said that he felt as though he could feel them standing in the forest looking at him, letting him know that this was where he came from. On his return through that same stretch of road, there was no follow up sensation, but it had left an impression on him. This was uncharacteristic of him to say and caught me a bit off guard. We didn’t really discuss the matter again after that.

It wasn’t until his death in October 2012 that I really dwelled on his revelation to me. I was very close to my dad, and I was the last person to talk with him before he passed. He had been moved to a hospice and had basically held on until I could arrive. We sat and talked for a bit, but after just a little while his mind wandered. As I sat with him his mind seemed to take a voyage – out of the hospital, to memories of World War II, and then finally to family that he recognized. He told me that he couldn’t reach them; they seemed above him, and he had his hand stretched out slightly trying to reach up. I placed my hand under his elbow to raise his arm a little more, to help him reach. He stopped talking after a little while, not responding to my questions or discussions anymore, and within a day succumbed.

Afterward, I did a bit of soul searching, and the story that he had told me about years before kept playing out in my head. I did a bit of research on our family – from our roots in Scotland and Ireland, to the Normans and further inland to near the Black Forest and the ancestors that my dad had felt on his visit there. This started me on the path to figure out who they were and what those ancestors believed. I read various sources, learning about heathens and revisiting Norse tales with a new set of eyes.

Matt with his family

It was finally when I started with research on the Hávamal ["Sayings of the High One," the major Odin poem in The Poetic Edda] that was the defining moment for me. These could have been – and in some instances were – the words of my father. Many of the lessons and advice presented were things that he had imparted to me throughout my life. I felt closer to my father and to my family as a whole when reading this. I knew that this called to me and was where I belonged. It gave me hope that one day, when it’s my time, I’ll go to the same place and be greeted by my family in our halls. I’ll raise a drink with my dad and wait on those that come after us, to greet them and welcome them home.

KS – How do you practice your faith and engage in ritual during regular duty and deployment?

MW – When I think of it, I’ll raise a horn for my folks. I don’t have contact with any other practicing heathens, so any more formalized ceremony seems odd as a onesie. Interestingly, that’s one reason I wanted to be able to select my preference as heathen; so that when enough people self-identify, I might be able to put in a request with the Chaplains Office to try to connect. Also, my mother had a tendency to go a bit overboard with religion, so I’ve chosen to honor my faith best by focusing on my family and keeping right with the natural environment around me. I figure, to live in a manner that would be respected by my father is one of the best ways to honor my faith.

KS – How have your colleagues and commanding officers reacted to your being heathen?

MW – It’s really a non-issue. I tend to be fairly private, so not that many people know as it is. The only interaction with the chaplains was to get the denomination approved as a preference, and that was met with support. My work ethic is well respected, and I support our unit to the best of my abilities. If a person didn’t ask, they really wouldn’t know. Although, I suppose the cat’s out of the bag now, so I imagine I’ll be fielding questions. That’s fine, though. Knowledge of a subject helps lead to further acceptance.

Matt with his youngest daughter

KS – What led to your involvement in the Open Halls Project?

MW – It actually started with an article written here [on The Norse Mythology Blog], about Josh and Cat Heath. After reading about their quest to get Ásatru and Heathen added as a religious preference for military individuals to be able to select, I decided to see what I could do to work that from the Air Force end.

KS – Can you explain what the religious preference list is?

MW – It allows the military member to self-identify what religion or denomination they adhere to. This gives the military a way to have a more accurate view of the religious demographic, and in some cases can allow members of a similar faith to connect through the Chaplains Office. Further, in cases where the member passes away during a conflict, by selecting their faith and having their records reflect what they wish done with their remains, it gives them the ability to have their personal wishes respected in terms of burial and last rites.

KS – What process was in place to have a religious tradition added to the list?

MW – The process is defined by the service that a member is with. It’s similar throughout the branches of service – Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines – but each will have specific forms or offices that handle these requests. For the Air Force, it starts with a request to a personnel manager, which is routed to the Chief of Chaplains Office for that specific branch, which – once validated – goes back to personnel management to input as a selectable preference.

Armed Forces Faith Code Update Process

KS – How did you personally engage with the Air Force in order to make this change happen?

MW – I started by trying to figure out who manages the process. I went to the Chaplains Office for the Air Force Pacific Command (PACAF), and placed an inquiry with them to start the ball rolling. I also looked at the central database for personnel (vMPF) to see if they had instruction for how to get a new denomination added. There was guidance on it, but I think that it was a bit outdated.

I placed my request, and was given a message that it was routed for approval, but no further emails were received. The Chaplains Office was helpful though; they put me in touch directly with the plans manager for the Chaplains Office at Air Force headquarters. That’s where my request picked up steam. The Master Sergeant that I talked to there seemed supportive and also wanted to sort the process out.

Not much longer after that I got a notification that it would be shortly that the approval would go through, and on a whim I decided to check. Apparently only hours before I checked, the personnel office had made the inclusion of the two requested denominations, and I was able to officially be recognized as a heathen. Now any airman can identify themselves as Ásatrú or Heathen in their military records, if they wish.

Matt in Hawaii with his oldest daughter

KS – What meaning do you think adding their religion to the preference list will have for heathens in the Air Force?

MW – With nearly 23% of the force listed as No Preference or Other, it gives us an opportunity to have a clearer picture of exactly how many heathen and Ásatrú there are in the military. This may lead to added chaplain support and a broader understanding of our beliefs. Also, it’s simply nice to be able to feel comfortable being open about who you are, and working in an environment that you can feel supports that.

KS – Do you think this change will have an impact on the recognition of heathens in the other branches of the US military?

MW – I hope so. I believe that the other services are not that far off. There are requests in with the Army that shouldn’t be too much longer, and members in the Navy and Marines intend to make their own requests. The success with the Air Force is encouraging and should give others something to point to as a positive for heathens.

KS – What do you think this achievement means for American heathens outside of the military?

MW – The military recognizing a faith does not necessarily mean endorsement of that faith. However, being able to point to verified members that are heathen or Ásatrú and serve our country can be a topic of pride for our community. Especially with the ideals that many of us hold in high regard, the military tends to be a natural fit.

Matt and his daughters

KS – Thank you for taking the time for the interview, and congratulations on your success! This is great news.

MW – Thank you. I appreciate you getting this message out to folks.


Rik and Lisa said...

I guess that is only appropriate since the USAF was the first branch to recognize Wicca as a religion within the DoD. If I remember correctly that happened back in the 1970s. I remember having this conversation with a Chaplin while I was active duty.

Amanda on Maui said...

Thank you for working to get Asatru recognized in such a large, powerful institution. I really appreciate it.

P.S. If you happen to know any heathens on Maui, shoot me a message. :)

Mahalo from Maui

MasonPiper said...

Congrats on a job well done Sgt.

My son's Nevada Army Guard dog tags do read Asatru for religion, he was getting them replaced and when asked about his religion he replied Asatru and after some Googling They stamped them out, But do remember the Patrick Stewart Headstone victory was here in the silver state, so at Least the Guard went with it on the tags if not officially.
He was able to participate in Selena Fox's veterans recognition ceremony at pantheacon, and show them off.

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